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PLoS One. 2012;7(2):e31478. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031478. Epub 2012 Feb 6.

Effects of ocean acidification on learning in coral reef fishes.

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Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis, Davis, California, United States of America.


Ocean acidification has the potential to cause dramatic changes in marine ecosystems. Larval damselfish exposed to concentrations of CO(2) predicted to occur in the mid- to late-century show maladaptive responses to predator cues. However, there is considerable variation both within and between species in CO(2) effects, whereby some individuals are unaffected at particular CO(2) concentrations while others show maladaptive responses to predator odour. Our goal was to test whether learning via chemical or visual information would be impaired by ocean acidification and ultimately, whether learning can mitigate the effects of ocean acidification by restoring the appropriate responses of prey to predators. Using two highly efficient and widespread mechanisms for predator learning, we compared the behaviour of pre-settlement damselfish Pomacentrus amboinensis that were exposed to 440 µatm CO(2) (current day levels) or 850 µatm CO(2), a concentration predicted to occur in the ocean before the end of this century. We found that, regardless of the method of learning, damselfish exposed to elevated CO(2) failed to learn to respond appropriately to a common predator, the dottyback, Pseudochromis fuscus. To determine whether the lack of response was due to a failure in learning or rather a short-term shift in trade-offs preventing the fish from displaying overt antipredator responses, we conditioned 440 or 700 µatm-CO(2) fish to learn to recognize a dottyback as a predator using injured conspecific cues, as in Experiment 1. When tested one day post-conditioning, CO(2) exposed fish failed to respond to predator odour. When tested 5 days post-conditioning, CO(2) exposed fish still failed to show an antipredator response to the dottyback odour, despite the fact that both control and CO(2)-treated fish responded to a general risk cue (injured conspecific cues). These results indicate that exposure to CO(2) may alter the cognitive ability of juvenile fish and render learning ineffective.

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